Does Being Online Build Connections or Weaken Them?

Some people are finding that the communications technology is enabling them.

My Desk
The author's desk.

Lloyd Alter

Hearing, listening and understanding are hard; it uses up a lot of what Professor Brandon Paul of the Cognitive Hearing Laboratory at Ryerson University calls "cognitive resources." As people get older and their hearing inevitably deteriorates, listening gets harder. "This is because the auditory signals that the person receives are strongly degraded, and listening thus requires more concentration." He notes that this can affect other things that don't relate directly to hearing, such as driving a car. I have written about how it can affect our ability to cross the street safely. He notes also that it can be particularly hard in the COVID-19 era.

"The depletion of cognitive resources is more alarming in the pandemic era. We all understand how exhausting it is to connect with people on video chat platforms. This problem disproportionately affects those who have hearing loss."

I found this particularly interesting as I have written so much about my hearables, my hearing aids that connect not only to my phone and my watch and through them, to the world, but also to my family. I personally have found Zoom and other video chat platforms to be a boon in so many ways. However, I have not been using my fancy Starkey Livio hearing aids very much; they only connect to my phone. I am doing most of my communicating through my computer via a pair of Apple AirPods, and find that I am connecting with my students, my colleagues at work, and to the various groups I belong to better than I ever did in person. I asked Brandon Paul about this and he responded:

"Your experience does have empirical support.  This article suggests that virtual communication sidesteps a lot of the challenges posed by typical everyday listening. For instance, virtual formats require that participants communicate one-at-a-time (less "cocktail party" listening or multi-talker listening), there is less distance and reverberation that can interfere with the clarity of acoustic signals (as you may experience in the lecture hall). As a result of better communication, according to the paper, feelings of social connectedness improved in their study sample." 

The study was done with people who wear cochlear implants (CI) and have much worse hearing than I do, The study authors thought that the isolation caused by the pandemic would be problematic, but that in fact,

"Contrary to our hypothesis, CI recipients overall felt less socially isolated and reported less anxiety resulting from their hearing difficulties during-COVID in comparison to pre-COVID. This, perhaps, implies that having a more controlled environment with fewer speakers provided a more relaxing listening experience."
Alex Bosikovic

Screen Capture of Alex Bozikovic

I have found this to absolutely be the case. I was recently on a Zoom call celebrating architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable's 100th birthday with critics from around the world doing readings, and I could understand every single word everyone said without any problem. This would not have happened in a lecture room where I would often sit in the front row, pretending it was so I could take photos but really so that I could hear better, and this is wearing the world's best hearables. Zoom adjusts the sound, cuts out all the other noise (if people remember to hit their mute button). Similarly, when I am teaching, the sound is way better in my Zoom class than it is in the real lecture hall. Professor Paul is intrigued, and is going to look into this:

"For people who are accustomed to a hearing lifestyle and lose their hearing, some of the biggest impacts (and costs to society) are a reduction in feelings of connectedness and social withdrawal due to the difficulty of listening in social settings, decreased workplace productivity, and poor academic performance for younger adults. Zoom and other platforms may be a way to improve these factors (professionally, socially, academically) for some members of the hard-of-hearing community."

The downside of living in the world of the AirPods instead of the hearables is that while I may connect to all of my computers, I am less connected to my wife and children because switching from one to the other is a pain. I get a sense that in this pandemic I am really slipping into this connected online world and losing connection to the local physical world. 

Apple could solve this easily if they put the same hardware and software that makes the hearables work with the iPhone into their computers and iPad or even let the phone work as a bridge; maybe there is a workaround that I don't know about. Life would be much easier if one set of hearables worked in both worlds.

But I am pretty sure that when this is all over, there will be a whole bunch of introverts and others like me who feel less isolated, have met more people, and have enlarged their circles of friends, as I have through Twitter and through my Wednesday night Passive House Happy Hours. I can't wait to get together for a beer with them all, but there is still a lot to be said for the virtual world. I have even come to look forward to our bi-weekly show-and-tell office meetings!

We should all get used to this; it is greener, eliminating all that transportation, and for some, it is less stressful and more efficient. And as the technology keeps getting better, it will get easier every day; bring on the holograms.